Fifty shades of black in Sudan

Woman with henna-painted hands in Sudan, February 11, 2005. Photo by Steve Evans on Flickr (CC BY 2.0.)

This article was written by Weam Al-Bashir and was originally published on Raseef22 on March 19, 2024. An edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

I recently found a photograph of me as a baby, and on the back, scribbled in my father’s handwriting, were the words: “Our daughter is blue.” He had intended to send it to his siblings in Sudan with one of the pilgrims returning from Mecca, along with a letter announcing the arrival of his new “blue” baby girl.

A person is born either white or black, with some differences and variations. Certain privileges are attached to the former, and complications to the latter. Black Arabs still have lower levels of citizenship in various Gulf and Levantine countries, stigmatized as the product of ancient African migrations or descendants of servants and slaves.

The people of Sudan, an African country with diverse tribes and mixed races, are considered Black in the eyes of the world. In the dictionary, the name of the country became the plural of the word “black” in Arabic (“aswad”). Ironically, though, Sudanese people hardly ever use the term black to describe skin color!

They only refer to eggplants as black, so a Sudanese version of baba ghanoush is known as “black salad.” As for skin color, the people of Sudan exhibit fifty shades of black.

Sudan's kaleidoscope of skin colors

An extremely fair-skinned Sudanese person is referred to as “red,” a reference to the reddish hue sometimes present in those with extremely fair skin. Sometimes, they are also called “Halabi,” as a reference to the city of Halab, Arabic for (“Aleppo“), descendants of Syrian communities that migrated to Sudan in ancient times. The description is general, even if the origins differ, and includes Sudanese people of Egyptian descent, as well as those with light skin and dark hair.

And then there's “yellow” Sudanese, not to be mistaken as a sign of jaundice! This label refers to those whose whiteness has a tinge of yellow; this is the predominant skin tone of the people of the Gulf. This color carries the global privileges associated with white skin and conforms with Western beauty notions, in comparison to the “Halaibis,” in reference to the town of Halaib. “Yellow” Sudanese are considered of purer Sudanese origin.

There is also “wine” or “wheat” color, the fairest shades of brown skin. As melanin increases, a person’s skin color is referred to as “green.” In my country, “green” skin is not only the color of aliens and plants. You often hear the quip, “Her greenness is refreshing,” meaning that her dark skin is radiant, like a ripe fruit.

And then there’s the “blue” Sudanese, who, unlike the Smurfs, are not blue, but rather, midnight black, like Vincent van Gogh's night sky with its blue hues. In Sudan, as in much of the rest of the world, those with “blue” skin are subject to certain privileges, but also discrimination and racism.

I've often heard a “blue” person be called abed, Arabic for “slave,” a crude term akin to the n-word for North Americans. I also hear hushed comments questioning a “blue” person's Arab ethnicity, analyzing the shape of their nose, how curly their hair is — features that some Sudanese consider accurate racial genetic tests.

Some trace “blue” Sudanese people to specific tribes and neighboring African countries in an attempt to prove pure Arabism. Inter-ethnic marriages, or any deviation from societal norms, are rejected and are subjected to snide and hushed remarks: “How could they marry this Arab girl to that abed?”

Echos of social identity

Sudanese society clings to Arabism and to the alleged lineage of ancient Arab caliphs. Asking a Sudanese person about their tribe is a common societal benchmark, and it’s unsurprising for an educated young man to seek a bride with no attributes other than being “white with long hair.” 

Subjected to harsh and unrealistic Western beauty standards, some girls resort to using cortisone drugs. These drugs reduce melanin secretion and cause water retention in the body, making them appear “refreshing.” Skin-whitening and exfoliating products are considered necessities for most girls of marriage age.

Both my parents are considered fair-skinned; my eldest brother is wheat-colored, and my sister is yellow. However, I came as a deviation from all expectations and genetics. I am “green,” or, as my father put it in his unsent note, “blue.”

I owe my love of my skin color to my parents, and so I hate using the beauty filters prevalent on social media platforms.

One day, I came home from school with a top-grade monthly report card in hand, crying because my “yellow” Saudi classmate called me abda on our way out of school. My mother consoled me, assuring me that the little girl was jealous of my academic excellence, of my beautiful eyes, my thin eyebrows, and my long hair.

I grew up believing I was beautiful. I cherished my hair and never cut it. I see my eyes as beautiful, despite never hearing this compliment from anyone other than my mother. I have kept my eyebrows thin by continually shaping them, and I refuse to use whitening products, ignoring the suggestions of my female relatives.

So, I see beyond what every matchmaker sees. Or what a university professor, who insisted on calling me “Chocolate” instead of my actual name (I reluctantly smiled and reminded him of my name each time), or what a lady passerby in Egypt once affectionately said to me, “But you all have a white and beautiful heart,” implying that this might compensate for our dark skin.

We are all deeper than the concentration of melanin in our skin, and it should not determine our privilege or our inferiority under any circumstances.

I do not claim to fully understand the harsh prejudice and racial classification that the “blue” Sudanese have faced over the years, but my experience as a dark minority in a Gulf country, or as a “green” child to “yellow” parents, has given me a vision and conviction that I hope will help overcome unproductive stigmas.

And I hope, after we recover from this war, that we cleanse ourselves from the legacy of racial and tribal privileges that the previous regime promoted, permitting the extermination of tribes in western and southern Sudan. Sometimes I feel that authorities in Khartoum are paying the price for its silence about the events in Darfur, while the world watches silently. Moreover, ordinary citizens suffer the most, enduring severe repercussions from both domestic turmoil and international scrutiny.

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